Patriots under pressure to maintain
Loss to Saints on Monday night could affect New England's cushion in AFC East
Two weeks ago, Bill Belichick came under intense scrutiny while trying to derail the Colts' potential unbeaten season.
The Patriots were battling Indianapolis for the chance to ultimately get home-field advantage in the AFC, and Belichick is always consumed with making sure Peyton Manning doesn't get the last possession. Belichick went for a fourth-and-2 deep in his own territory and was stopped by inches. The Colts got the ball back, won the game and pretty much locked up home-field advantage for the playoffs.
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Monday night's game against the Saints features a different challenge for Belichick and the Patriots. Sure, there is the spoiler role available. The Saints are 10-0 and have the easiest closing schedule in the league. If you take away the Patriots game, the Saints close out against teams that have a combined record of 21-30. The Patriots would love to make sure their 16-0 season of 2007 isn't shared by the Saints or any other team.
But, there is more pressure on the Patriots in this game than the Saints. New Orleans leads the NFC South by five games and could clinch the division with five games remaining if it beats the Patriots and the Falcons lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Patriots have a two-game lead over the Dolphins, but a loss could set up a chance for the Dolphins to tie New England when the teams meet next week in Miami.
The advantage for the Patriots on Monday night is the Saints' problem at cornerback. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter have been out with injuries. Sensing the Patriots will spread the field with wide receivers in this game, the Saints have added veteran cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie to try to match up.
The question is whether Tom Brady will throw to his third and fourth options. In recent weeks, Brady has been playing pitch-and-catch to three main targets -- Wes Welker, Randy Moss and Kevin Faulk. In the Week 11 victory over the Jets, Brady threw 28 of his 41 passes to Welker and Moss, completing 16. He had eight completions to Faulk. Only five attempts went to other receiving options. The week before against the Colts, 32 of Brady's 42 attempts were aimed at Moss, Welker and Faulk.
This game features two of the great minds in football. Belichick is not only a genius on defense, but he's allowed Brady and the offense to be one of the most advanced and aggressive in the league. The Saints' Sean Payton is a brilliant playcaller and is having his best season with Drew Brees, averaging 36.9 points a game, the kind of numbers Brady and the Patriots put up in their undefeated season.
Ratings should be at an all-time high for this game. It could also end up being one of the higher-scoring games of the season.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: Believe it or not, both teams have reached the crisis stage. The Steelers reached even more of a crisis when they found out Saturday that Ben Roethlisberger will be scratched from Sunday's game because of his concussion, leaving Dennis Dixon as the starter. Dixon has been the third-string quarterback and is not ready to get into any kind of a throwing match with Joe Flacco, who has established himself as an elite quarterback. There is a good chance the Steelers could lose their third straight and drop to 6-5. They problems don't stop there. They can't stop anyone on kickoff returns and Troy Polamalu is out.
The Ravens thought they were in bad shape, but things look better now. However, that doesn't hide the fact that they've lost five of their last seven games. Flacco, who has played beyond his two years of experience, is struggling a bit, locking onto a little too much to wide receiver Derrick Mason and halfback Ray Rice. The secondary had been having troubles in pass coverage, but things got worse in the past couple weeks with Terrell Suggs down with a knee injury and cornerback Fabian Washington out for the season with a torn ACL. Both teams meet each other twice in a month, the second meeting in Pittsburgh Dec. 27. It's not out of the question for a split but the Steelers might have to wait until Roethlisberger to get back to turn the season back around. The Ravens have won five of the past six meetings against the Steelers in Baltimore, but the Steelers lead the series, 16-10.
2. Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: The Texans appeared to be on the verge of making it over the top as a franchise. But close losses to the Colts (Week 9) and Titans (last Monday night) have the team once again mired in mediocrity (5-5). Matt Schaub has moved into the elite quarterback group by throwing for close to 300 yards in every game, but something seems to short circuit in division games. The Texans are 13-33 in AFC South games, including a 1-14 mark against the Colts.
Two weeks ago, the Texans showed they can compete against the Colts. Their defense limited Manning, and their offense moved the ball. But missed fourth-quarter field goals by Kris Brown left Houston on the losing end. Another close loss could put Gary Kubiak's job under review, even though he and general manager Rick Smith have done a great job building up a good, young team.
3. Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: Winds of change are blowing in the Windy City. Coach Lovie Smith has $11 million remaining on his contract, which runs through 2011, but there is a restless feel to this team. It's underachieved on defense. Jay Cutler's throwing too many interceptions and his mechanics are off. Bears ownership is in a tough spot. Though costly, it has to be tempting to put a Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan on the sidelines while the opportunity is there. Will Chicago do it? Probably not. But the more the Bears lose, the more the subject will continue. Meanwhile, Vikings QB Brett Favre continues to have a magical season. He's thrown only three interceptions and has the highest completion percentage in his career. Life begins at 40.
4. New York Giants at Denver Broncos: The Broncos are reeling. This Thanksgiving night game comes at a bad time for them. They have lost four in a row. Kyle Orton is playing on a bad left ankle. Opposing offenses are pile driving the Broncos' defense. Over the past month, teams have found out that the Broncos' 3-4 defense plays with plenty of energy but lacks size and bulk. If you limit its substitutions and on-field adjustments with some no-huddle, the Broncos' defense can wear down in the second half.
5. Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles: Injuries and total disappointment ruined the Redskins' season, but at least they are playing hard for Jim Zorn down the stretch. Unfortunately, they don't have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Eagles. They are down to Rock Cartwright at running back because of the concussion to Clinton Portis and the season-ending knee injury to Ladell Betts. Several injuries have depleted the offensive line.
The Eagles are starting to soar on offense with the young legs of LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson. Donovan McNabb won a close game in Week 11 (24-20 over Chicago), something he has struggled to do over the last couple years.
6. Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans: Preservation meets restoration in an interesting game in Nashville. The Cardinals are trying to preserve quarterback Kurt Warner until the playoffs, a challenge made tougher in the next two weeks against two physical defenses -- the Titans and the Vikings. Warner suffered a concussion last Sunday against the Rams. He should be fine to play, but the Cardinals can't afford his getting any injuries if they wish to do well in the playoffs. The Titans are on a roll with Vince Young, who has resurrected their season after an 0-6 start. The playoffs may be out of reach for the Titans, but they are having fun and they can play the role of spoilers.
7. Carolina Panthers at New York Jets: Jets coach Rex Ryan is a master at destroying opposing offenses, but now he has switched roles, devoting the week to trying to fix his struggling quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Sanchez has thrown six interceptions in the past two games and 16 for the season. Maybe it's fitting Sanchez is playing against Jake Delhomme, who had a seven-game stretch in which he had 21 turnovers. Delhomme has fixed some of his problems with turnovers lately but the Panthers have fallen out of the playoff race. Both teams are 4-6, and the loser of this game can start thinking about next season.
8. Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have to be mindful of relaxing and feeling too overconfident. They overcame a 3½-game deficit in the AFC West and now lead the division by a game. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has revamped the style of the defense, adding blitzes from the defensive backs that have been very effective during the team's five-game winning streak. At 7-3, the Chargers have a chance to get to 11 or 12 wins and maybe secure a bye week.
9. Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: When the Bills met the Dolphins in Miami Oct. 4, their season still had some promise. They entered the game 1-2 and Trent Edwards had a certain degree of confidence. Now, Edwards is benched for good, coach Dick Jauron has been fired, the offensive line is like a MASH unit and the team is 3-7. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have turned around their season with Chad Henne at quarterback. The loss of nose tackle Jason Ferguson could hurt the Dolphins' ability to stop the run, but it probably won't make much of a difference in this game. The Bills' offensive line is a mess, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has taken over for Edwards, probably won't be able to do much against the Dolphins' defense.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: Coach Mike Smith has plenty of things to fix with the Falcons. He served notice to kicker Jason Elam by bringing in four kickers for tryouts Tuesday. Elam has missed four field goals in the past four games and has missed six of 16 this season. No matter what Smith does, he can't seem to fix the Falcons' problems at left cornerback, and where has the pass rush been this season? It doesn't help that RB Michael Turner is recovering from a high-ankle sprain and QB Matt Ryan has been tentative throwing because of his recent bout with interceptions. Meanwhile, Raheem Morris took over the defensive play calling from Jim Bates and went back to the Cover 2 scheme.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.